Martin Hengel. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977. 102 pp. $19.00.
Martin Hengel will be one of the most celebrated New Testament scholars during the 21st — 22nd centuries. His scholarly contributions are multitudinous. Yet, Crucifixion is arguable the most widely read work of his, and possibly the most significant. This hundred pager is no light reading, but it is not unthinkable either.
In Crucifixion Hengel wades through what appears to be the entire extant corpus of extra-biblical literature that alludes to crucifixion. As he navigates this material, Hengel directs readers to critical observations about crucifixion. He conveys that crucifixion is a criminal’s death (4, 49-50), a cruel practice (13), a difficult message to preach (18), indignifying (24), the summum supplicium — supreme punishment (33), and servile supplicium — slaves punishment (51), among other observations.
Many might attempt to twist crucifixion into being a hero’s death, but no indication from Greek or Roman literature indicate that this is the case. Crucifixion drew, as Hengel argues, “deep aversion” (14). It was a barbaric way to put down hostility to hegemony and do away with the lowest of people: the slaves and the criminals.
So, when Paul claims that the crux is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greek, he means exactly what he says. Here’s how Hengel concludes his thesis:
“All this leads to a final conclusion which it is difficult to resist. When Paul spoke in his mission preaching about the ‘crucified Christ’ (I Corinthians 1.23; 2.2; Galatians 3.1), every hearer in the Greek-speaking East between Jerusalem and Illyria (Romans 15.19) knew that this ‘Christ’ — for Paul the title was already a proper name — had suffered a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves and rebels agains the Roman state. That this crucified Jew, Jesus Christ, could truly be a divine being sent on earth, God’s Son, the Lord of all and the coming judge of the world, must inevitably have been thought by any educated man to be utter ‘madness’ and presumptuousness.” (83)
Of course, giving away the thesis doesn’t gain you any ground on enjoying and experiencing the whole process of watching Hengel’s masterly approach of bringing you to this conclusion. It is an effort of grace and finesse; Hengel proves himself to be an academic acrobat.
I always understood the punishment of crucifixion to be a death penalty of severe suffering. The crucifix hanging from the front of the Roman Catholic church I worshipped in all through childhood left no room to suppress that impression. And if it had, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ brought the sensation to technicolor for me. Yet, Hengel struck a new nerve for me. He surfaced the emotional element of crucifixion.
Crucifixion was not just physical torture but it left a mark of shame and dishonor on all those who endured it. Just like when a family member brings shame upon the family, Christ’s crucifixion brings shame upon the entire family of Christ. What we call a badge of shame — with our merchandising of the cross — was more like a badge of shame for the early Christians. It’s easier to historically document a man hanging from a tree rather than document an empty tomb. And those who identified with that well documented cross and the Christ upon it, were looked upon more like Hester Prynne, with her scarlet letter. They were outcasts of society; they were dejected, downtrodden, and scorned. To identify with Christ is to identify with a criminal rebel and slave rather than a prince. If anything, Crucifixion helps Christ followers grip the humiliation of Christ all the more.
In addition, as I said above, Crucifixion is a display of impressive research. Martin Hengel effortlessly interacts with numerous Greek and Roman texts, displaying his authority and expertise in this field of study. Hengel encourages me to improve my studies and pick up more of the classics. Who knows what valuable observations and contributions might be pilfered from this literature, all for the sake of theological studies?
Essential Recommended Helpful Pass It By
Crucifixion is a crucial classic for every Christ follower.